(Ed. Note: This is a two-part piece from our newspaper for Black History Month celebrating a family that has left a lasting impact on Fayette County)
Many Fayette County residents, especially those who haven’t been around town long, probably don’t know the name Rosa Anderson, and they almost certainly don’t know the impact one woman could have on a whole community. When she passed away Jan. 4 of this year at the age of 95, she left behind a legacy of education and love for her community.
Anderson taught in the county for more than 30 years, teaching generations of residents. After working at the all-black Fayette County Training School, she became one of the first African Americans to teach in the newly-integrated Fayette County School System. She was recognized for excellence, honored as Fayette County’s Teacher of the Year in 1976 after helping to start Peachtree City Elementary School. The following year, her photo was included in the book “History of Fayette County.” When she retired from teaching, she kept fighting for her beloved profession as an active member of the Fayette County Retired Teachers Association.
For her service to the community, at her funeral a proclamation was read on behalf of the City of Fayetteville and Fayette County.
“Mrs. Rosa Merryll Penson Anderson was one of Fayette County’s and Fayetteville’s most beloved residents,” reads the proclamation in part.
Spending most of her life in the county, and 70 years in the City of Fayetteville mostly in a home on Church Street, Anderson was there to see the area grow into what it has become, from a small farming community into a county on the rise. Anderson was always a smiling, kind constant.
“I called her the Ambassador of Church Street,” said Derryl Anderson, her daughter and the oldest of four children. “She would sit out on the porch and she would wave to everybody.”
Though the community around her changed, her values remained steadfast. She believed in family, faith, education, and a friendly smile.
Born Rosa Merryll Penson in January of 1921, she grew up in Clover, a town that runs roughly from Home Depot to Falcon Field in modern-day Peachtree City. Surrounded by family, the Penson family compound was good farmland run by hardworking people. The family would also establish Bethlehem Baptist Church, a church still active on Dividend Drive in Peachtree City.
The youngest of six, Rosa was called “Little Sister” by her family. With older brothers, she got out of much of the grueling work, but she would soon find her calling.
Rosa’s mother taught her in elementary school at Wilks Grove Baptist Church. In an era where work and farming were the priority, Rosa’s mother became the teacher for a simple reason.
“Mother Rosa did not have a college degree, it’s just that she knew how to read,” noted Derryl.
In those days, there was work to be done if you weren’t in school. Learning needed to be a passion.
“You went to school because you wanted to learn,” said Derryl.
And Rosa wanted to learn. She attended Fort Valley Laboratory High School before enrolling at Fort Valley State College.
“In her family of her age bracket, she was the only one that went to college (straight out of high school.”
She shared her passion not just in the classrooms, she also taught Sunday School and did whatever else she could for her beloved Bethlehem Baptist Church.
“She did it all. She did not sing in the choir though. Thank goodness for that,” joked Derryl.
While attending Fort Valley State, she met her future husband, William Joseph “Joe” Anderson. Joe enlisted in the Army, and when he asked Rosa to marry him, she took trains and buses out to California where he was stationed. They eloped in 1944 and were married for 56 years before he passed. Wherever Joe went, his wife, who he affectionally called “Chubby,” was by his side.
During World War II, Rosa returned to the county, settling in Fayetteville, renting a room while Joe served in the Army.
They waited a few years to have kids of their own, but Rosa took great interest in her students and neighborhood children. Their first child, Derryl, was born in 1948, and three more followed, two girls and one boy.
“Three too many,” joked Derryl.
A thirst for knowledge was a key trait of the Pensons.
“Two of the things that were very important to my mother’s family, the Pensons (some spelled Pinson), were education and work. The majority of them even now have gone on to get some type of formal education,” she said. “It is a family trait. You get educated or you work.”
It was passed on to Rosa’s children.
“My mother was an avid reader. She read constantly,” remembered Derryl. “I grew up in a household of books because she was a teacher. My father encouraged us to read too.”
Of the many things friends and family remember fondly of Rosa was her love of hats.
“She wore hats all the time. She had enough hats to start a millinery shop. She had spring hats, winter hats, casual hats. You name it,” said Derryl, who asked that all of the females wear one of Rosa’s hats to her funeral. As many wearers as that entailed, that didn’t nearly cover the collection.
“Come to find out, there was another bag of downstairs, too,” she laughed.
Rosa never met a stranger either, only friends she hadn’t gotten to know yet.
“She never went anywhere where she didn’t say something nice to somebody,” said Derryl. “If somebody sat next to her, she was going to talk to them. She was going to joke with everybody.”
She left an impression and a smile with seemingly everyone she came across. When Charles Rousseau was running for County Commissioner, Derryl was helping with his campaign. Charles came to their home to bring Derryl some materials, and Rosa tried to charm him. She was quite successful.
“Mama was sitting on the porch when he came up. She said, ‘You’re just as handsome as can be. I need to be about 50 years younger.’”
Their delightful exchange left a lasting impression.
“Just that one moment was embedded in Commissioner Rousseau,” said Derryl. “He never forgot about my mama. He always asked about her. He always gave her a hug when he saw her.”
After an impactful life, that warm spirit and charm may be what sticks with most who knew Rosa.
“Those are the kind of moments that people always remember about her.”
For her service and love, Fayetteville and Fayette County won’t ever forget Rosa Merryll Penson Anderson.
When Rosa Merryll Penson Anderson passed away January 4 of this year at the age of 95, she was remembered as a dedicated educator with a love for her community. The love of service and dedication to one’s home was shared by her family.
Rosa’s husband, William Joseph “Joe” Anderson, was a hard worker who loved helping his fellow man. Joe was born November 27, 1917 in Fort Valley. It would be in Fort Valley where he also met the love of his life.
Joe was attending Morehouse College on a band scholarship when he returned to town.
“I met my husband in Fort Valley, when I was in school. He was going to Morehouse College in Atlanta. He came down one night to a dance at school,” said Rosa in an undated interview found in a family scrapbook. “I finished high school with his cousin, and the people use to talk about him playing football so much when he was in high school..I did not think too much about him, but later he came back home, and I was still in college, and that is when we started dating.”
Joe joined the Army and served in World War II, but distance did not keep them apart. Rosa hopped on buses and trains to get to California. Joe and Rosa eloped and got married February 10, 1944.
“He was stationed at Fort Ord, California. He was there about a year, then he went overseas. I went out to visit him before he left to go overseas,” said Rosa, who was a college senior at the time. “What is funny, I did not tell my mother I was married…When I went out there, my mother was disappointed. I told her I was coming back to finish school, but I did not want him to go overseas without me going out there to see him.”
The pair were inseparable.
“Wherever he went, she went,” said daughter Derryl.
Joe and his beloved wife, who he affectionally called “Chubby,” were married 56 years before he passed in 2000. They had four children, Derryl, Sonya, Felecia, and Clarence.
Though he did not go back to school after he finished his service, he made it clear education was key.
“His goal was to go back and finish, but he never did. He was really a stickler about education and all of the tools a college graduate could learn,” said Derryl.
Faith was always important to the family, even the pets.
“I went to Sunday School from the time I can remember,” said Derryl. “We had a dog named Bobo that would walk us to church and lay up there in the foyer until we came out.”
Joe was a Methodist whose church was Merrill Chapel UMC. Rosa’s family was Baptist and even helped build Bethlehem Baptist Church in Peachtree City. Because nobody could afford to pay a pastor every week, churches in the area would rotate Sunday service then, so each got their turn. Wherever service was that week, you could bet the family would be in the pews.
“Everybody goes to church. If you don’t go to church and you’re a Penson, something is wrong with you,” said Derryl.
Joe made his life as a builder in one form or another. When he returned from the Army, he started out working construction, learning the tools for laying bricks and building homes. He worked in buildings and grounds doing maintenance at both Clark College (now Clark Atlanta) and Spelman, but remained a builder on the side.
“He did it himself. They’d laugh at him because he’d be out there digging this hole one shovel at a time,” said Derryl of the home he built on Church St. for the family. “We’re still here. It’s so solid. It’s a well-built house.”
He left a mark on the community as well, building homes away from his day job that still stand on Church St., Booker St., and Holly St. He also worked as an electrical repairman.
“He learned the skill for electrical work. That’s what he did in the Army,” said Derryl. “He was the only TV and radio repairman around here for a very long time.”
He was a tireless worker for all ages in his community.
“Daddy started the first Boy Scout Troop here for blacks, and momma helped,” remembered Derryl. “My brother had a ragtag band, the first little integrated band (in the county), and they would rehearse in our basement.”
Discouragement in darker times did not stop Joe from getting involved. When he registered to vote, he was not allowed to enter the courthouse, he had to throw his registration in through the window.
“The following week the Ku Klux Klan had a rally and came up our street,” she said. “My sister and I thought it was a parade. We were standing outside and waving at the Ku Klux Klan, and momma was inside crying and daddy had his shotgun.”
Joe, who later served as a member of the Democratic Party Executive Committee for Fayette County, became a prolific advocate for voter rights.
“He was the first black to ever do voter registration. As one person, he registered more persons than anyone else in the history of this county to date,” said Derryl. “He registered literally almost every black or white person that’s near my age and older. As often as he could, he’d get ’em in.”
Activism was passed down through the family, and it is a passion Derryl still pursues in Fayette County.
“I got my activism from my father,” she answered plainly.
Derryl moved to Atlanta after college, where the legendary Civil Rights leader Reverend Joseph Lowery was her pastor.
“I was blessed to have been involved with Reverend Lowery,” she said. “When he said march, we asked what time do you need us to be there.”
She also worked with Congressman John Lewis and others in state and national politics. Her last full-time job in politics was with U.S. Senator Wyche Fowler. When Fowler lost a re-election bid, Derryl returned to Fayetteville to regroup and found it was time to stay.
“I just didn’t have the desire to move back to Atlanta,” said Derryl, who took on helping her mother who was in declining health. “Momma told me it was God trying to tell me to stay here.”
Upon returning, she got involved and stayed involved, including becoming the first black woman in the history of the county to serve on the Planning and Zoning Commission.
For her Church St. neighborhood, she was vigilant, repeatedly calling the police to help root out crime.
“When I moved back we had a real bad problem with drugs on Church St. They would sell on church grounds during church services or in the gazebo in the park,” she said.
With the help of the police the problem is getting better, so too is the overall environment. The Church Street Park is in the middle of renovations, but she’s not done fighting for improvements. The old homes at the heart of Fayetteville won’t be forgotten on her watch. Many of the residents of the area are elderly and look to Derryl to be their spokesperson.
“We still need more improvement,” she said. “We have sidewalks and stop signs because I complained. I used to go over to City Hall and give them hell.”
Derryl learned you have to be willing to work for what you deserve. Her family is interwoven in the fabric of Fayette County, from shaping it into what it is today to building a brighter future for every man, woman, and child. When we are all long gone, the impact of the Penson-Anderson family will live on.